Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the world's first
fully-contained underground nuclear explosion. On September 19, 1957, the U.S.
Department of Defense (DoD) detonated a 1.7-kiloton nuclear weapon in a tunnel
beneath the Rainier Mesa in the Nevada desert,
some 100 miles north of Las Vegas.
The modified Genie W-25 warhead measured only 25.7 inches in length and 17.4
inches in diameter, but weighed a hefty 218 pounds. Although the Rainier shot was staged nearly 900 feet underground, white dust
from the blast shot high into the air above the Nevada Test Site (NTS). Shock
waves were detected as far as 2,300 miles away, at a remote monitoring station
Planning for the Rainier Shot
Planning for the world's first underground nuclear test
began in 1956. David Griggs, a geophysicist who served as chief scientist for
the U.S. Air Force (USAF), sought to study how energy from such a nuclear blast
would affect the surrounding geology. Edward Teller, the theoretical physicist known
as the "father of they hydrogen bomb", embraced Griggs' efforts and provided needed
support. Harold Brown, a researcher for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) who
later became the first scientist to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense,
setup a symposium about the use of nuclear explosions for non-military purposes,
such as the building of canals and dams.
Between May and October of 1957, the U.S. Department of Defense
staged 29 nuclear tests in the Nevada
desert. Operation Plumbbob, as the project was known, served a variety of purposes.
These included safety studies that did not produce nuclear yields, the testing
of tactical nuclear weapons, and component and mockup testing of thermonuclear
systems for Hardtack I, a series of atmospheric nuclear-weapon tests scheduled
for 1958. Although the Rainier shot was one of last tests in Operation
Plumbbob, the success of the September blast encouraged proponents of the AEC's
Plowshare Program, which sought to transform swords (nuclear weapons) into
plowshares (nuclear explosions for peaceful purposes).
The Importance of the Rainier Test
Rainier shot was announced in advance so that seismic stations in the United
Sates and Canada
could collect seismic data. To collect samples for radiochemistry analysis, several
holes were drilled from the Rainier Mesa above into the tunnel blow. Later, after
the radioactivity had decayed to manageable levels, data was collected by drilling
a tunnel into the explosion cavity. These post-explosion investigations
provided scientists with an understanding of underground explosion phenomenology
that remains virtually unchanged today. The success of the Rainier
shot also helped build support for the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, an
international agreement which banned atmospheric nuclear weapons tests.